Mary Speaks: “The Testament of Mary” and “The Confession Stone” a Midrash for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunda 2015Judas, Peter, Pilate, Caiaphas, and John – these are the names most often heard in the stories we hear during Holy Week….the men who failed Jesus or who conspired against Jesus, their names we hear during this holiest of weeks. But what of the women who stood by Jesus, who wept for Jesus, who bore witnesses to the betrayal, the trial, the execution, and the death of Jesus. Where are their stories during this week of weeks? For centuries, the church has failed to listen to the voices of the women whose lives were intertwined with Jesus’ life. The stories of these faithful women have been hidden in the mists of time. This Palm Sunday we turned to one of those women; to Mary the mother of Jesus. Her voice has been silenced by the church. She has been confined to works of art that speak not with words. 

So, as we enter Holy Week we turn to two new works of art that give voice to Mary’s story. Anne Keith and I will do our best to give voice to Mary’s story using the words of the Irish writer Colm Tóibín whose book, “The Testament of Mary” imagines Mary as an old woman, nearing the end of her life, looking back on the life of her beloved child Jesus. You will hear cynicism in the voice of Mary who is visited by the men who will tell her son’s story; men who are determined to make a particular meaning out of Jesus life and death. Mary does not share their enthusiasm for the tragedy that robbed her of her child, nor will she twist her own story to suit their needs.

Mary’s voice will also come to you through music. Mezzo soprano, Linda Condy, accompanied by our Musical Director: Marney Curran, B.S.M., A.R.C.T., will preform “The Confession Stone: Songs of Mary” composed by Canadian Robert Fleming based on the poems of Owen DodsonOwen Dodson was an African-American poet whose work is part of what has been dubbed the Harlem Renaissance. Dodson’s poetry brings a lively humanity to the Mary empowering her voice to evoke the passion of a mother’s loss.

Both Owen Dodson and Colm Tóibín provide a powerful midrash with which to begin our Holy Week. 

3 thoughts on “Mary Speaks: “The Testament of Mary” and “The Confession Stone” a Midrash for Palm Sunday

  1. I think Colim Toibin badly missed the boat. I may have to write a short story or perhaps a novel in response. Toibin is frankly full of horse manure. Mary of Nazareth is as I envision her: 1) deeply immersed in the Law & the prophets which she heard in synagogue since her youth; 2) a woman of great faith as her cousin Elizabeth who has greater faith than her priest husband; 3) while finding her son Jesus–her first born of several– a strange & moody man, she knows that he is an instrument of God as when at Cana immediately after he says he can’t do a thing, she promptly, without so much as a by-you-leave, turns to the servants & says “do as he tells you”: 4) the source not only of Jesus body [see Virginia Mollenkott on this issue] but of his spirituality as well; 5) at the crucifixion when soldiers try to keep her away she, with tearful eyes, stares them down until they cannot look at her; 6) as in Zefferilli’s film a Jewish mother who mourns loudly as she kneels in the mud & rain, holding his bloodied body; 7) on the first day of the week when Mary of Magdala tells of seeing Jesus & Peter, James & the others do not believe, she calls Magdala to herself & asks, “how did he look?” “did he say anything?” Granted in ways I am a traditional Protestant. But I think Toibin missed the mark–badly! I’m thinking of a responsive short story.

    • We must remember that Mary is a mythical character and as such there will always be various imaginings of her life that will resonate with different people. What I like about Tobin’s imagined Mary is her humanity, a quality often missed by some tales that are told about this powerful character. I also like her steadfast refusal to accept the glorification of he child’s execution. I look forward to reading your short story!

  2. The OED in defining “myth” says that is “a narrative . . . embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena.” The Iliad of Homer, whoever he was, tells a mythical tale involving a city which careful historical study and archeological field work found really existed and came to some kind of cataclysmic end. I think we are well past debating that sometime in the first century of the Common Era an itinerant rabbi in the Roman-controlled province of Israel or Palestine, if you will, existed and apparently was executed for crimes against the state. As a human being he had a mother, whether her name was Mary of some other common Hebrew name.
    Two decades ago I heard one of the best sermons of my life, preached by a friend who is a minister in the Church of the Brethren. In speaking of the Bible and its historicity, he declared that “We may yet discover that poetic truth is more powerful, more instructive than ‘historical truth’ or ‘religious truth.’” It struck me then and still strikes that is why the Jewish and Christian Scriptures attract people, whether “believers” or not– they speak poetic truth about the human experience.
    In the scant but interesting poetic truths about Mary, the mother of Jesus, which we find in the writings of Luke and John, I see a strong, spiritually sensitive woman, not a sniveling, angry crone as described by Toibin. I undertook a bit of study, reading reviews of Toibin. I suspect that he is the kind of man– like many another I have dealt with in my life, beginning with my father– who is afraid of strong, independent women and therefore responds by degrading, demeaning them.
    I’ve taken the liberty of attaching an Easter reflection which I wrote a year or two ago. I think Mary of Nazareth was more like Ma Jodd and the IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to whom Joe Hill wrote “don’t mourn, Gurley girl, organize!” and the tens of thousands of women in 1920 who voted for the imprisoned socialist and pacifist Eugene V Debs to become president of the United States. [Although in a federal prison, he received over 900,000 votes, almost half of them from women.] My text follows:

    Finally, beloved,whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8

    *****
    Nearing the end of the powerful film version of Grapes of Wrath, the main character, Tom Jodd, portrayed by Henry Fonda, has this conversation with his mother:

    Tom: I’d like to stay, Ma. I’d like to be with ya and see your face when Pa gets settled in some nice place. I’d sure like to see ya then. But I won’t never get that chance, I guess, now.
    Ma: I would hide ya, Tommy.
    Tom: I know you would, Ma, but I ain’t gonna let ya. Ya hide somebody that’s killed a guy and you’re in trouble too.
    Ma: All right, Tommy, but what do ya figure you’re gonna do?
    Tom: You know what I’ve been thinkin’ about? About Casy, about what he said, about what he done, about how he died. I remember all of it.
    Ma: He was a good man.
    Tom: I’ve been thinkin’ about us too. About our people livin’ like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Well, maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’, and I’ve been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…
    Ma: Oh, Tommy. They’d drag you out and cut ya down just like they done to Casy.Tom: They’re gonna drive me anyways. Sooner or later, they’d get me for one thing if not for another. Till then…
    Ma: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody?
    Tom: No, Ma, not that. It’s just, well, as long as I’m an outlaw anyways, maybe I can do somethin’. Maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if ain’t somethin’ can be done about it. I ain’t thought it all out clear in my mind, I can’t. I don’t know enough.
    Ma: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why, they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?
    Tom: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul – the one big soul that belongs to ever’body. Then…then, it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be ever’-where – wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.
    *****
    When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within uswhile he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Luke 24: 30-32

    *****
    A song by Alfred Hayes, Music by Earl Robinson
    I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
    Alive as you or me
    Says I, But Joe, you’re ten years dead
    I never died, says he
    I never died, says he
    In Salt Lake, Joe, says I to him
    Him standing by my bed
    They framed you on a murder charge
    Says Joe, But I ain’t dead
    Says Joe, But I ain’t dead
    The copper bosses killed you, Joe
    They shot you, Joe, says I
    Takes more than guns to kill a man
    Says Joe, I didn’t die
    Says Joe, I didn’t die
    And standing there as big as life
    And smiling with his eyes
    Joe says, What they forgot to kill
    Went on to organizeWent on to organize
    Joe Hill ain’t dead, he says to me
    Joe Hill ain’t never died
    Where working men are out on strike
    Joe Hill is at their side
    Joe Hill is at their side
    From San Diego up to Maine
    In every mine and mill
    Where workers strike and organize
    Says he, You’ll find Joe Hill
    Says he, You’ll find Joe Hill
    I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
    Alive as you or me
    Says I, But Joe, you’re ten years dead
    I never died, says he
    I never died, says he
    *****
    When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,“Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). John 20: 14-16
    *****
    “Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institution. . . Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means… I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own. When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.” ~ Statement to the court on September 18, 1918, by Eugene V Debs upon being sentenced to federal prison for speaking against American participation in the First World War.
    *****
    Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John 20:28-29
    Finis.

    So I ask myself were the fictional sufferings of Casy and Tom Jodd in The Grapes of Wrath and the historical sufferings of Joe Hill and Eugene Debs in vain? Worth nothing? The brutal public execution of Jesus of Nazareth for preaching challenges to the religious, social and political systems a futile gesture? Not in my soul! Not to my mind! I am optimist enough to believe with H. D. Thoreau that “If one honest man, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this Commonwealth and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.” And with the writer in Romans that “Where sin abounded, grace did all the more abound.”
    I find Toibin’s demeaning of Mary of Nazareth and minimizing the significance of the political act of Jesus execution to be wide of the mark, bitter, tasteless, indeed, insulting. Rather, as Debs declared in a courtroom, “Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.”

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